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Facing More Episcopal Church Decline

By David Goodhew

The Episcopal Church’s statistics for 2017 are just out, and this article updates the picture I discussed last July, when I drew from an analysis by Dr. Jeremy Bonner, a Durham-based researcher.[1]

The church deserves congratulation for the detail, accuracy, and especially candor it shows in sharing its data. Beyond that, it has to be said that the news is bad. The church is a movement, and the Episcopal Church is moving downward. The data from 2016 showed decline, but some optimists hoped the decline was slowing. This is not borne out by the data from 2017, when membership and attendance continued to drop at the same rate as in 2016 or, in some instances, at a sharper rate.

Year  Baptized Membership Average Sunday Attendance
2000 2,329,045 856,579
2005 2,205,376 787,271
2010 1,951,907 657,831
2015 1,779,335 579,780
2016 1,745,156 570,453
2017 1,712,563 556,744

There are always individual churches and dioceses that buck the trend, but the trend is clear. Baptized membership dropped in domestic dioceses by 19.1 percent in the decade up to 2017 and this continues, with a drop of 1.9 percent in 2016-17.

The Episcopal Church shrank in the 1980s and ’90s by a number of measures, but the pace picked up from around 2000. The pace of decline increased markedly again between 2005 and 2010. Since 2010, it has continued to decline: at a slower pace than 2005-10, but faster than 2000-05. In other words, things are not be quite as bad as they were in 2005-10, but they are bad.

Baptized membership and Sunday attendance has been dropping at a roughly even rate since 2010. The drop in Average Sunday Attendance in 2016 and 2017 is smaller than 2013-15, but the drop in 2017 was bigger than in 2016.

There is wide variation between dioceses, as the chart below, sampling four very different dioceses, shows:

Diocese     1990 2010 2017
Fond du Lac 9,736 5,859 4,833
Dallas 35,373 31,777 31,235
Los Angeles 78,235 59,527 49,359
New York 63,975 60,446 48,880

As can be seen from the table above, the rate and relative timing of decline varies markedly, but almost all dioceses are in decline to some degree.

The steady fall in the number of parishes and missions has slightly slowed in the last couple of years, but continues and is large over time. There was a net fall of 753 between 2004 and 2017, a drop of over 10 percent.

Year Number of Parishes and Missions
2004 7,200
2008 6964
2012 6,667
2016 6,473
2017 6,447

The Episcopal Church has made attempts to promote evangelism and church planting in recent years. While such efforts will take time, it is pertinent to ask what is happening. Data on congregation size and congregational closures suggest that the long-term aging of the church continues, as do its deleterious effects. It is striking that the percentage of congregations with big falls in Average Sunday Attendance in the last five years has significantly risen (from 52% to 57%), while the percentage of congregations growing markedly in the last five years has fallen (from 19% to 15%). This suggests much faster action is needed both to start new congregations and rescue those that are shrinking.

Hard data can be a friend, for it allows us to ask hard questions. How many new congregations have been formed in the last three years? What is their demographic profile and growth trend? Which dioceses and parts of the country have most potential for growth, and in which dioceses is that potential not yet being acted upon?

Numbers are not everything, but the virtue of hard data is that it makes churches face tough questions.


[1] Bonner’s research appears in Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion: 1980 to the Present, ed. by David Goodhew (Routledge, 2016). That article and this one examine data from the Episcopal Church’s dioceses in the United States. They do not include those in Province IX or overseas dioceses in other TEC provinces.


  1. I live in the minuscule Diocese of Eau Claire, but I would speculate that the Diocese of Dallas would have virtually no decline if they hadn’t lost Christ Church, Plano.

  2. Considering the Church doesn’t want to ordain people of color or people a particular church think are perfect, who’s surprised.

    • Most considerations pertaining to ordinands are whether or not that particular diocese could use that person, even though the church does not pay for the training as in the Church of England. This is the main reason why most Episcopalian candidates for the priesthood are adult converts who in many cases have not even attended an Anglican seminary. Also, no one wants to sponsor anyone who is not pro-choice, or who even gives the impression of not being so potentially. Notice that the most Anglo- Catholic diocese from the Beretta belt in Wisconsin has lost half of its communicants. Anglo-Catholics stating they wish to get ordained to serve in Episcopal schools elsewhere, and not in local parishes get short shrift. The Episcopal Church is doomed. Fed up with both the Roman Catholic & Episcopal Churches I became a Buddhist 20 years ago. Everyone needs to read “The Pagan Christ” by Harpur.

  3. I would suggest taking the Baptised Membership numbers with a large grain of salt. Our “baptised members” number is half what it was a decade ago, but only bacause we finally dropped people from our rolls who hadn’t attended in years. If a church’s Baptised Members number is more than twice its Average Sunday Attendance, something is out of wack.

  4. In response to diminishing membership: Evangelical and non-denominational churches are pulling members from all denominations. As a remedy I think Episcopal church needs to, and already does, appeal to the “left wing” issues. So put it out there!

  5. I was a church organist for over 30 years. Even though I am very liberal, I am now an inactive Episcopalian. (I am now a Unitarian Universalist – very liberal indeed.)

    What drove me out of the Episcopal Church is the overall toxic church politics. My last parish, for example, does not treat staff well. I have been a member of Episcopal churches in different parts of the US – and every parish has had some kind of strife. I am now in a healthy church.

    When people cut out the high school nonsense and cliques in a parish, then people might come. At the same time, reciting the same nicene creed Sunday after Sunday just does not make sense in the 21st century.

  6. Unfortunately, even the positive comments about “detail, accuracy, and candor” are questionable. The real numbers are likely worse than the parochial reports indicate. Because of the definition of terms, people are reported as active members well beyond any genuine participation in the life of a parish or even living in the same community. They are counted as active essentially forever unless they die or specifically indicate in writing that they are moving their membership or otherwise leaving a parish. It appears that Clergy and their associated parishes are motivated to report inflated numbers because they represent seats and votes at the diocesan and general conventions. Clergy, of course, like to have the ASA look good as it is at least partially a reflection on their effectiveness and some seem to find creative ways of counting on Sunday mornings.

  7. I pray for the Episcopal church in America.Its leadership either never knew God or has forgotten him.Having the greatest evangelism program won’t work if Ichabod is written over the door.What we all need is to repent.

  8. The Episcopal Church would fare far better if it were to take clergy discipline and organizational integrity as seriously as it takes its efforts to implement the Dennis Canon. Beyond that, I will say only that I speak from personal and painful experience.


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